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It was the plate sermon again, and Hannah did her best to sit through it and pay attention. That was only fair. Though she’d left the temple, she was still a cleric, and had a seat up front, facing the congregation. She was wearing her chasuble, embroidered with symmetrically pleasing designs. Beneath the chasuble, which was the most visible part of the getup, she was wearing her clerical garments, those which held religious significance and were part of the ensemble. You couldn’t do buttons properly if you wanted your outfit to be truly symmetrical, so the robe, pants, and shirt were all made with seams along both sides, and the whole of it had been symmetricalized as much as possible while still taking into account the human body that it was meant to be covering.

There were more extravagant outfits for a cleric of Garos, ones which incorporated even more symmetry into their designs, but in Hannah’s opinion, they all failed when actually put onto a person. Wearing an outfit with sleeves at the front and back as well as the sides simply looked silly, if you weren’t going to go to the trouble of having a truly symmetrical body.

There was, among the clerical order of Garos, a tendency toward performative symmetry, a term seen only in a very few texts within the grand libraries of the seminary. In the eyes of Garos, things which were more symmetrical were better, but clerics and the laity didn’t have eyes nearly so good as a god’s. As a consequence, there emerged a natural focus on those elements of symmetry which were conspicuous, obvious to even the lay people, visible. It wasn’t just about whether something was symmetrical, it was about whether it looked symmetrical, and more, whether it looked like you had really gone out of your way and suffered some hardship to get it like that.

One of the reasons that Hannah loved Mizuki’s house was that it was symmetrical in an understated way. When you looked at it, you might say to yourself, ‘ah, that looks pretty symmetrical’, but then when you felt it, or did a closer inspection, you could see that great pains had been taken to get everything aligned just so, and where it needed to bow to concerns of so-called practicality, it seemed to do so grudgingly. The house was symmetrical for its own sake, or possibly for the sake of Garos.

The problems of performative symmetry which seemed to plague the Church of Garos weren’t unique, of course. Even just looking at the other clerics, Hannah could imagine that they had their own issues of the same sort. Pann, the very tall cleric of Xuphin, wore clothes of many layers, and Hannah had to imagine that just for the sake of practicality, it had been stitched in such a way as to make the layering more prominent, that it wasn’t actually roasting her. Performative maximalization, perhaps? And Lin, their cleric of Oeyr, was wearing a dyed chasuble, which showed splattering and streaks from a chaotic process.

But the whole point of Oeyr, at least as far as Hannah understood him, was that there was no such thing as chaos, that everything you could see emerged naturally from lower level rules. The dye was performative emergence. As a cleric of Garos, Hannah was painfully aware that at lower levels, there was asymmetry everywhere, and while Oeyr wasn’t the God of Asymmetry, the asymmetry was a natural result of emergent properties. The pockets of air in a loaf of bread were ‘randomly’ distributed unless it had been symmetricalized, but then, air pocket distribution in bread wasn’t a flashy form of emergence, so hardly anyone ever pointed to it.

That ‘unseen’ emergence was important to their god though, and so clerics of Oeyr trotted out the plate sermon at regular intervals.

“This is a plate,” said Lin, holding up a white plate. Lin, like Mizuki, had Kiromon heritage, and it was more visible on his face than hers, though Hannah had a vague recollection that he was from a different region. Kiromo had, at one point, been five different kingdoms, but the same consolidation that had created Inter had happened there too, and much of the factionalism had died down. For a moment, Hannah considered speaking with Mizuki about it, but it was very likely that Mizuki didn’t know much about it. “When we see this plate, we want to think of it as its idealized form, a circle with a raised lip, a complete, solid object. This is, like it or not, how we see most things. We think in terms of these solid objects, or these classes of being,” he nodded to Filera, cleric of Qymmos, “And this is good and useful — but this is not how the world really is.”

He threw the plate against the ground, and it shattered. It was dramatic, she could give the clerics of Oeyr that. Lin bent down and picked up two of the biggest pieces.

“We break things, and we see their jagged edges,” he said. “They look random to us — why break here but not there? But they are governed by rules. A plate like this one is made from clay, and while the potters do their best to work the clay into a smooth consistency, there are hidden patterns in the working. When a potter kneads the clay, they form layers, and to ensure that the plate won’t crack along those layers, they change the direction they knead in, folding the clay over, flattening it down, folding it again. What has happened to the clay remains though, and while it might take a microscope or a cleric’s touch to know, something of the process always remains.” He paused. “Some years ago, when I was in Plenarch, I went to a museum which had a number of entads on display that allowed some insight into the natural world. One of them was an entad that slowed time to a crawl within its diameter, so much so that it would kill a person outright at the boundary. I was able to see a shattering, that fraction of a second, slowed down to a whole afternoon. It was still surprisingly fast, but I had touched the plate before, and had known where it was most likely to crack when it struck the floor.”

Lin set the pieces of plate down. “Everything is like this. Everything is shaped by its history. There are fundamental rules to the universe, those that are hidden and those that are obvious, but they are there, and they govern us. Oeyr offers no guidance to us on the nature of the universe, whether or not we have free will, or other big questions that I’m personally not equipped to answer,” there was some light laughter, and Lin grinned, “But what we perceive to be random, or disordered, is merely a result of forces whose complexity is often beyond our comprehension. I think it’s something vitally important for us to understand, not just when the unexpected happens to us, but when we think about the world, and our place within it, and especially when we contemplate the rules by which we live our lives.”

This was veering a bit close to politics for Hannah’s liking, but she did her best to keep the frown from crossing her face. Looking at the gathered congregation, she could see her reaction to those words wasn’t the norm, but people didn’t always hear arguments when they heard them, not if they were delivered sideways. Her eyes went to her party, all of whom had come. They were sitting together, and Alfric seemed like he was the only one paying much attention. He had a frown.

“The two limits of a party are three and five,” said Lin. “Three to make a party or keep it, five to fill it. Forget for a moment those who made the parties as they are,” and fat chance of that, thought Hannah, “and think for a moment about the implications. Part of what I do, as a cleric of Oeyr, is to think through rules and what they mean, effects that follow directly and those that follow at a remove. Any time you do that, you’re communing with Oeyr, and I imagine that you do it frequently, as it is, after all, our nature as humans. For a party, it means that people will organize into units of five, that tables at taverns will seat five, and more, that fives become one of the modes in which we think, dividing in our minds a group into fives. If you party with friends, there becomes a wall between those friends inside the party and those outside. If you party with family, it’s a matter of who is in or who is out. The party unites, but as a consequence, it also divides. Rules, and their consequences.”

He began to pace the raised platform they brought out for sermons. “I had a cat, growing up, who would steal food from the table. I’m sure some of you can relate. He misbehaved, so my father, who had something of a temper toward bad behavior, would swat at the cat whenever it jumped up. The cat learned the rule: if it jumped up onto the table while my father was there, it would get swatted away. But the lesson the cat got from this rule was not that it shouldn’t jump up onto the table, but that it should only do that when my father was away, and the cat, being bold, would sometimes wait until my father was occupied with something else. It learned, and adapted, just in an unexpected way.”

Lin grinned, and some of the congregation were smiling along with him. It was a softening from his directly political talk, which might have been part of it. “Now I know what you’re thinking — did I really break a plate just to make a point? Doesn’t that seem a bit wasteful?” He smiled and held out his hand. The pieces of plate flew up into the air and reformed, perfectly intact in his hand. “Well, it was only for the sake of demonstration. Kids, don’t try this at home, not unless your plates are entads like this one.”

This got a good reaction from the crowd, but that might have been because of the display of magic.

From there, the sermon was concluded, and Lin gave the usual wrapping up, talking both about the schedule for the coming week and announcing the next speaker for the temple day, a visiting cleric of Kesbin, as it was quite close to a holy day, not that Kesbin was big on celebration.

And then it was finally over, and Hannah felt herself relax a bit, though there was plenty of duty left to go.

There had been perhaps three hundred people in the main hall of the temple, and it could have held twice that with ease, or three times that a bit less comfortably. Attendance was unusually good in Pucklechurch, though that might have come from the fact that the church was central to the community and a place for people to gather. In a normal rural community, you might expect a bit less than a tenth to come to any given temple day, since some people considered themselves adherents of only one god and didn’t feel inclined to come to other sermons, and there were people who were too old or infirm, and would be visited by clerics throughout the week. Children were often excluded from the sermons, taken to play outside as a large gaggle and supervised by the teachers.

There was a comfortability to rural life, Hannah thought, though they did things differently in Pucklechurch as compared to Cairbre.

Hannah did the usual glad-handing and checking in with people, and was asked about how the dungeons had been going nearly two dozen times. As a cleric, you got used to saying the same things over and over, and you became familiar with the modes of interaction with the lay people. She was in a somewhat difficult spot of having left the temple to go pursue other work but still being a part of the clerical community. This wasn’t entirely unusual, but uncommon enough that she fielded lots of questions. People also wanted to know about the wardrobe, and a few of the younger ‘followers of Garos’ wanted to check in with her, or give her updates on their dating lives.

Hannah found it all very energizing, but she could readily understand why other clerics sometimes had trouble with it.

“Good sermon,” Hannah said to Lin when their paths crossed. “I think it’s my fifth or sixth time hearing a plate sermon. My first time seeing the plate come back together though, I’ll give you that.”

“It’s on loan,” said Lin. He smiled at her. “We’ve had complaints about smashing the plates in the past, but I’m worried that children will just test their own plates for magic power.” He grinned at Hannah. “I hope it wasn’t too much of a retread.”

“I usually don’t hear so much politics in it,” said Hannah.

He shrugged. “Nothing overt. And the Church of Oeyr doesn’t hew to neutrality quite like the Church of Garos.”

“The Churches matter less than the community,” said Hannah, giving him a nod. “But you did well, I thought. I know you’ve said that you hate giving sermons.”

“They give me a case of the nerves,” said Lin, nodding. “But I do think it went pretty well. I think I need to work on my structuring a bit, and perhaps let it play out a bit longer, but I typically prefer my sermons shorter, truncated.”

They went their separate ways, and there was more talking, endless talking, including a bit of gossip, as well as some discussion of Lin’s sermon. The bit about the cat was, for some people, quite relatable, and they had stories to share with Hannah, presumably because they liked her.

While all this was going on, things were being put away, and the church was being reduced to its natural state. Hannah saw Alfric helping to move the pews back into their closets, which made her feel a bit of pride. He was an outsider, and it wouldn’t have been expected of him, which meant that he’d gone out of his way to lend a hand. Once that was done, drinks and food were set out, just a snack for the people who were milling about, and Hannah saw Mizuki there, speaking enthusiastically with one of the volunteers who was helping with things.

As the temple slowly emptied, Hannah collected her party. Isra had been sticking to Verity, and the two of them had been speaking with Cynthia, the owner of the Fig and Gristle. To Hannah’s surprise, it had been Isra who was doing most of the talking.

“Plants want to grow,” said Isra. “When people say that a plant is in the wrong climate, what they mean is that the plant has trouble getting what it needs, either in water, sunlight, or temperature. There would be no problem in growing a fig tree here, so long as you gave it what it needed.”

“And you could do that?” asked Cynthia, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yes,” said Isra. “If you have a fig whose seeds I could take. It would take a year or two to produce the first fruit, longer for it to be a reliable supply.”

“Well, I think I’d like that,” said Cynthia. “It would cut down on costs, that’s certain, though it would be a bit of an investment.”

“No,” said Isra. “We would do it for no charge, unless you’d want it done with ectad support.”

“You could do it without ectads?” asked Cynthia.

“Yes,” nodded Isra. “Though it would take more tending.”

“You don’t need to do it for free,” said Verity. She was touching Isra’s arm. “It’s the kind of thing you can charge for.”

“She’s a friend though?” asked Isra.

“Yes,” said Verity, barely missing a step. “But to put in that kind of work, to have it be a gift, is maybe a bit much.”

“Equal rights to the figs,” said Cynthia, holding out a hand. “And a meal on me, once a month. A fair trade?”

Isra nodded, and they shook hands.

“Ready to go?” asked Hannah.

“We are, yes,” said Verity. “Alfric is,” she looked across the room. “Talking to the tall woman.”

And indeed, Alfric was in conversation with Pann, the cleric of Xuphin, his head tilted up to meet her gaze. He glanced over at them though, and said his goodbyes, diverting slightly to point out to Mizuki that everyone else was ready.

“Well,” said Alfric. “That was an … interesting sermon. We’re ready to go?”

“Think so, yes,” said Hannah. They started moving, all together.

“If we’re going to be actually talking about the sermon, I have to say upfront that I wasn’t paying the most attention,” said Mizuki.

“Then what were you paying attention to?” asked Isra.

“Um,” said Mizuki. She glanced at Alfric. “The smith’s apprentice. Just daydreaming.”

“Don’t you have Rolaj?” asked Isra.

“He’s in Liberfell,” said Mizuki. “And we’ve been exchanging letters, yes, but it’s so slow, and if we’re going on dates, it’s going to have to be all spread out, at least until we get proper travel entads that make it less than a mile’s walk to Liberfell. And like I was saying, it was just daydreaming.”

“You could do things the Cairbre way,” said Hannah. “Propose marriage to him and see if it works out.”

“I don’t think I’d ever do that,” said Mizuki. “I hardly ever make the first move.”

“Women,” said Hannah, rolling her eyes.

“That’s not so unusual,” said Verity. “Is it?”

“It’s not,” said Hannah. “That’s the whole problem. Women don’t make the first move, whether that’s because they learned it or just how they are, and then lament that no one has come to them. It’s especially the case with women who want to be with other women. Can you imagine two women who both desperately want to be with each other, sitting across the room and makin’ eyes at each other, neither makin’ the first move?” Hannah glanced at Verity. “Well, I’m guessin’ that you can.”

“I never know whether they’re actually interested,” said Verity, shrugging. “It’s most likely that they’re not, right?”

“But Mizuki, if he asked, what would you say?” asked Alfric.

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “Maybe … yes. Probably yes. At least how Hannah described the arrangement to me.”

Are we going to talk about the sermon?” asked Verity. “I thought it was fairly standard, for Oeyr.”

“It was political,” said Alfric.

“It was,” nodded Hannah.

“It was?” asked Isra. It felt like a week ago, she might not have asked that question.

“All the stuff about intervention,” said Alfric, sighing. “Though I suppose that it’s possible to read it another way. There’s a problem with sermons, which is that they give clerics — preaching clerics — an opportunity to voice their opinion to a large crowd. The churches are supposed to be neutral with respect to politics, at least in most circumstances, but that’s not always the case, and there are arguments for them having more than just soft political power.”

“I don’t really know much about that,” said Mizuki. “You’re talking about Interim politics.”

“Global politics, actually,” said Alfric. “Anything the Editors do affects the whole world. Not that we have all that much ability to affect what they do, and not that the Editors can or do move with anything resembling speed.”

“But not everything they do is about ‘intervention’,” said Verity.

“Well,” said Alfric. “As said in the sermon, anything you do to change the world in any way can be seen as intervention, so whether you’re an interventionist or leverist or culturist or whatever camp you belong to, there are different ways of framing things and different lenses to view things through. The sermon was political, but it felt like leading the goat to the trough without actually making him drink. I was waiting for a call to action, but it never came.”

“This is going over my head,” said Mizuki.

“Mine too,” said Isra.

“At least you have an excuse,” said Mizuki.

“Well,” said Alfric. He glanced at Hannah. “Unless you’d rather take this one?”

“Go right ahead,” said Hannah.

“Well, the Editors make the grand rules of the world, though they keep quite a bit secret, mostly because they’re worried about people trying to break things open or otherwise wreck their work,” said Alfric. He was starting further back than Hannah thought was necessary, but looking at Isra, perhaps he was right to do so. “The magical spells that anyone can do were all created by the Editors, as were the structures themselves, the parties, guilds, hexes, provinces, and nations, along with the roles within those, and a number of other things. Each of those changes, even minor changes, takes quite a bit of effort on the part of the Editors, but it also takes a bit of buy-in from — well, in the past it was funding from multiple kingdoms, but now it’s enough to get one of the bigger nations.”

“Which is why they engineered that there be large nations,” said Hannah.

“Well,” said Alfric, waggling his hands. “Unclear.”

“Much of what he’s saying is unclear,” said Hannah. “Built together from bits and pieces, rather than resting on good authority. The Editors are immortal, with their own ways and means.”

“I can let you go, if you’d like,” said Alfric.

“Och, go ahead, just helpin’,” said Hannah. She didn’t take a particularly dim view of the Editors, but she knew what history there was to know, and most of it, when taken together, painted them as simply human, even if they didn’t participate in society. Even their proposals were presented without comment, no attempts at flattery, bribery, threats, or concessions, though that might have been because of their own odd politics.

“So the Editors make their plans, then they come to Inter and ask for material support to get the change implemented,” said Alfric. “And if the nation says yes, that’s all good, it usually takes a few years but whatever needs to get built does get built, and then when the change is done, it all gets torn down and the rule, or whatever they’ve done, is a part of the world.”

“And there’s been some duplicity in the past,” said Hannah. “Because there’s no proper way to audit the Editors, and they hold their secrets close to their chest.”

“Well, yes,” said Alfric. “But on the whole, they’ve moved the world in the right direction.” He raised an eyebrow at Hannah. “You’d agree with that, wouldn’t you?”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “I’d say that you’d be hard pressed not to agree, but I’ve spoken to enough people who have their resentments of one kind or another, who think the Editors are hypocrites, unelected in spite of them makin’ votes so prevalent. And other arguments, naturally. But it’s said that no one alive can quite grasp how horrible the world once was, and I’m inclined to agree with that sentiment.”

“Oh,” said Alfric. “Isra, I was going to say, we should probably talk about voting, and what to do if a vote happens. I’d assume that they covered that in comp, but if you were out in the woods … I don’t want you to be surprised by it. And ideally, we would get you to be eligible for a vote, if you’re not already.”

“What do I need for that?” asked Isra.

“Just some basic civics and general knowledge,” said Alfric. “There’s overmagic to take care of the rest of it. I didn’t ask the censusmaster about whether you could vote or not, but my guess is that you can, there just hasn’t been a vote in Pucklechurch.”

“Last one was four years ago,” said Mizuki. “My first and last. She would have been under age.”

“Explain it to me in more detail later,” said Isra. They were approaching the house. “Along with all the other things you’ve been talking about. I know you weren’t trying to be opaque.”

“Sorry,” said Alfric. “I’ll try to get you up to speed, it’s not very complicated.”

“It’s insanely complicated,” said Verity.

“No, it’s like the sermon,” said Alfric. “Simple rules, vast and terrifying consequences.”

“What a wonderful description of politics,” said Mizuki. “Now, who wants lunch?”

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Alexander Wales

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